Head, Heart, and Hara: Integrating Three Brains

Robert Gilman is an astrophysicist who turned his attention away from the stars to focus on creating humane sustainable culture here on Earth. In a course I took from Robert, he mentioned that when he was doing post-doc work at Princeton, he discovered that if he wanted his ideas to be taken seriously, he had to be able to explain them to his colleagues using at least three different coordinate systems in order to demonstrate that he knew what he was talking about. The idea of knowing via three coordinate systems has stayed with me. Since everything exists in multiple dimensions, if we can only describe something from one perspective then our understanding of that thing is woefully inadequate. When we can discern how patterns that show up in several dimensions are all part of a larger whole we greatly improve our chances for adapting to a rapidly changing reality.

In Chinese medicine and martial arts there are three centers in the body known as dantiens. These are located in the gut (lower dantien), heart (middle dantien), and head (upper dantien), respectively. Interestingly, modern neuroscience now confirms that each of the three dantiens corresponds to one of the body’s three brains. This gives us a terrific set of three modes of knowing, each with their own coordinate systems (vocabularies), from which to learn more about life. In m-Braining: Using Your Multiple Brains to Do Cool Stuff, authors Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka posit the following functions as primary for each of our three brains:

Head Brain – Executive

• Cognitive perception • Thinking • Making meaning

Heart Brain – Emotional

• Emoting

• Relational affect

• Values

Gut Brain – Instinctive

• Mobilization

• Self-preservation

• Core identity

It’s become popular in certain circles to talk about “Heads, Hearts, and Hands” but this is not an accurate summation of integrative intelligence. “Hands” in this phrase makes for nice alliteration but it does not reflect the instinctual intelligence of our gut brain. If you want an alliterative phrase that does include all three brains you can substitute “hara” which is the Japanese word for the lower dantien.

Contemporary industrialized cultures tend to over emphasize the executive brain and dismiss the intelligences originating from the emotional and instinctive brains as irrational. This effectively cuts off two valuable ways of knowing by devaluing the relational field we create with other people and divorcing us from the intelligence of our bodies. Rather than get caught up in the rational vs irrational binary, it’s helpful to value rationality and non-rationality as both having utility for creating more effective ways of being in the world.